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Divorce is Down: Are Couples More Happy?

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Here's another silver lining to the recession -- the divorce rate is dropping dramatically, even though the population is growing.

happy looking couple

Dr. Wendy Walsh: According to the Centers for Disease Control's National Center for Health Statistics, the divorce rate is the lowest in 30 years! So what's going on? Well, if you consider that the primary clusters of divorce decline are in Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New York -- yep, the northeastern states with heavy exposure to the financial industry -- you can assume that divorce has become just too expensive.

Paying for costly divorce lawyers aside, it takes a mini-fortune to maintain two homes these days, so many couples are opting to ride out the rough patch. (Reminder to those faced with such a dilemma: Didn't your vows include "for richer or for poorer?") Bottom line, it is much cheaper to support one household than two.

In a Canadian study authored by York University professor Anne-Marie Ambert, two kinds of divorce are mentioned: those resulting from an unhappy marriage, and those resulting from "a weak commitment to marriage." In other words, in good times, plenty of salvageable marriages are terminated, but a recession creates more "commitment" to marriage.

Besides surviving together, long-term marriage can even be profitable. According to Barbara Bartlein, RN, LCSW, author of Why Did I Marry You Anyway? Overcoming the Myths that Hinder a Happy Marriage, long-term marriage leads to greater wealth accumulation. Sharing expenses and making the responsible choices that go along with raising children leads to wealth.

And, according to Bartlein, accumulated wealth is not the only reason a good-enough marriage should stay together. "Couples learn from the experience and find that their marriage is more empowered because they worked through problems. Often, those divorcing look at the process as "solving my problems" when, in fact, divorcing can create a host of new problems, including financial, custody, arranging visitation, dealing with in-laws, etc. Couples also learn new skills when they go through a hard period that helps them in the future. Many long-term marriage partners report that it gets easier as the years go by."

Kids can help too. A study out of the UK suggests that married people with children have increased "life satisfaction" when compared to either childless couples or single parents. For unmarried individuals, raising children has little or no positive effect on their happiness. These findings are by Dr. Luis Angeles from the University of Glasgow in the UK.

One other factor that erodes salvageable marriages in good times is the boredom factor. "For boredom to have such long-term implications I think is very significant," said co-author Terri Orbuch, a research professor at the University of Michigan and a professor of sociology at Oakland University. But Orbuch's study found that closeness over time can eliminate that effect. Sharing novel activities with each other -- like taking a wine class or learning to play a sport -- is the key, said Orbuch. The recession has been linked to reduced employment and more free time -- time that can become quality time with a spouse. And, facing the emotional and physical challenges of surviving a recession together is anything but boring!

Finally, Tiger Woods example aside, infidelity may be on the decline. Financing an affair can be prohibitive, and hunting for a job may take precedence over hunting for a lover. The extra cash and leisure time required for sexual courtship are both in short supply as people worry about paying the mortgage.

All this is ultimately good news because new research on happiness and divorce suggests that two-thirds of the spouses who stayed with their marriage instead of divorcing were happy five years later. Of those spouses who did leave the marriage, only half were happy after five years, according to Why Did I Marry You Anyway?.

So, staying together can actually help you find happiness!

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